Standing Up for Golden Rice
Science 20 September 2013:
Vol. 341 no. 6152 p. 1320
Standing Up for GMOs
Bruce Alberts(1), Roger Beachy(2), David Baulcombe(3), Gunter Blobel(4), Swapan Datta(5), Nina Fedoroff(6), Donald Kennedy(7), Gurdev S. Khush(8), Jim Peacock(9), Martin Rees(10), Phillip Sharp(11)
1 Bruce Alberts is President Emeritus of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and former Editor-in-Chief of Science.
2 Roger Beachy is a Wolf Prize laureate; President Emeritus of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis, MO, USA; and former director of the U.S. National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
3 David Baulcombe is a Wolf Prize laureate and Royal Society Professor in the Department of Plant Sciences of the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK. He receives research funding from Syngenta and is a consultant for Syngenta.
4 Gunter Blobel is a Nobel laureate and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Professor at the Rockefeller University, New York, NY, USA.
5 Swapan Datta is Deputy Director General (Crop Science) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi, India; the Rash Behari Ghosh Chair Professor at Calcutta University, India; and a former scientist at ETH-Zurich, Switzerland, and at IRRI, Philippines.
6 Nina Fedoroff is a National Medal of Science laureate; a Distinguished Professor at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia; an Evan Pugh Professor at Pennylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA; and former President of AAAS.
7 Donald Kennedy is President Emeritus of Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA, and former Editor-in-Chief of Science.
8 Gurdev S. Khush is a World Food Prize laureate, Japan Prize laureate, and former scientist at IRRI, Los Baños, Philippines.
9 Jim Peacock is a former Chief Scientist of Australia and former Chief of the Division of Plant Industry at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Canberra, Australia.
10 Martin Rees is President Emeritus of the Royal Society, Fellow of Trinity College, and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.
11 Phillip Sharp is a Nobel laureate; an Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA; and President of AAAS.
On 8 August 2013, vandals destroyed a Philippine “Golden Rice” field trial. Officials and staff of the Philippine Department of Agriculture that conduct rice tests for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) had gathered for a peaceful dialogue. They were taken by surprise when protesters invaded the compound, overwhelmed police and village security, and trampled the rice. Billed as an uprising of farmers, the destruction was actually carried out by protesters trucked in overnight in a dozen jeepneys.
The global scientific community has condemned the wanton destruction of these field trials, gathering thousands of supporting signatures in a matter of days.* If ever there was a clear-cut cause for outrage, it is the concerted campaign by Greenpeace and other nongovernmental organizations, as well as by individuals, against Golden Rice. Golden Rice is a strain that is genetically modified by molecular techniques (and therefore labeled a genetically modified organism or GMO) to produce β-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Vitamin A is an essential component of the light-absorbing molecule rhodopsin in the eye. Severe vitamin A deficiency results in blindness, and half of the roughly half-million children who are blinded by it die within a year. Vitamin A deficiency also compromises immune system function, exacerbating many kinds of illnesses. It is a disease of poverty and poor diet, responsible for 1.9 to 2.8 million preventable deaths annually, mostly of children under 5 years old and women.†
Rice is the major dietary staple for almost half of humanity, but white rice grains lack vitamin A. Research scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer and their teams developed a rice variety whose grains accumulate β-carotene. It took them, in collaboration with IRRI, 25 years to develop and test varieties that express sufficient quantities of the precursor that a few ounces of cooked rice can provide enough β-carotene to eliminate the morbidity and mortality of vitamin A deficiency.‡ It took time, as well, to obtain the right to distribute Golden Rice seeds, which contain patented molecular constructs, free of charge to resource-poor farmers.
The rice has been ready for farmers to use since the turn of the 21st century, yet it is still not available to them. Escalating requirements for testing have stalled its release for more than a decade. IRRI and PhilRice continue to patiently conduct the required field tests with Golden Rice, despite the fact that these tests are driven by fears of “potential” hazards, with no evidence of actual hazards. Introduced into commercial production over 17 years ago, GM crops have had an exemplary safety record. And precisely because they benefit farmers, the environment, and consumers, GM crops have been adopted faster than any other agricultural advance in the history of humanity.
New technologies often evoke rumors of hazard. These generally fade with time when, as in this case, no real hazards emerge. But the anti-GMO fever still burns brightly, fanned by electronic gossip and well-organized fear-mongering that profits some individuals and organizations. We, and the thousands of other scientists who have signed the statement of protest, stand together in staunch opposition to the violent destruction of required tests on valuable advances such as Golden Rice that have the potential to save millions of impoverished fellow humans from needless suffering and death.
* B. Chassy et al., “Global scientific community condemns the recent destruction of field trials of Golden Rice in the Philippines”; http://chn.ge/143PyHo (2013).
† E. Mayo-Wilson et al., Br. Med. J. 343, d5094 (2011).
‡ G. Tang et al., Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 96, 658 (2012).
By Kai Kupferschmidt
9 August 2013 4:30 pm
Protestors from two anti-GMO groups, KMB and Sikwal-GMO, yesterday vandalized a field of genetically modified (GM) "golden rice" in the Bicol region of the Philippines.
GMA News TV channel in the Philippines showed dozens of young men and women tearing down fences, swarming over a rice field, and uprooting stalks. "I am outraged," says Ingo Potrykus, a plant biologist, now retired, who was one of the researchers that originally created the rice strain. The rice was just weeks away from being harvested, he says. "Important data were to be collected from that field trial, and this can set us back months."
Golden rice is engineered to carry two foreign genes—one bacterial and another from maize—that together produce beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A that gives the rice grains their characteristic yellow hue. Scientists hope distribution of the modified rice can make inroads against vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness and makes people more susceptible to infectious diseases. The deficiency affects approximately 1.7 million children aged 6 months to 5 years in the Philippines alone, according to the International Rice Research Institute.
The vandalized field was one of five involved in golden rice trials in the Philippines aiming to show that "the plants are suitable for cultivation and would give farmers a good crop, and to assess any environmental impact they might have," says Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute. The grain harvested from the plants is also needed for studies assessing whether the beta carotene in the rice is absorbed and converted into vitamin A in vitamin A-deficient people. Golden rice could be deemed safe and approved by the Philippine government as early as the end of this year, Zeigler says—but the efficacy trials could take another 18 months. That's the timeline if the remaining field sites are unmolested, Zeigler says.
The Philippines’ Agriculture Department plans to step up security at the trial sites. In Zeigler’s view, the vandals are unfairly attacking the public sector project as if it is a multinational company producing GM plants for profit. They “are condemning this technology by association," he says.
Kai Kupferschmidt is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine based in Berlin, Germany.